When faced with the choice between shopping at a big-box store or your local “Mom & Pop”, which would you choose?
The big-box probably has a wider selection, lower prices, and more convenient hours. You can stroll in at 10 p.m. and be out by 10:15 with a box of cereal, a screwdriver, and a set of bath towels. And you’d probably spend less money there than you would going to the grocery, hardware, and linen stores separately…not to mention all the gas you’d save.
And yet, many of us would still rather shop with Mom and Pop. In fact, a 2014 survey found that two-thirds of Americans prefer to shop at small businesses, even if it means paying more.
There isn’t a simple, straightforward answer to that question. Elements of culture, psychology, and economics all play a role, and disentangling them is, frankly, beyond my qualifications. But, by simply exploring this “why”, we can gain some valuable insights into a seemingly unrelated question —
“Why does content matter?”
What makes Mom and Pop so appealing isn’t price, convenience, or selection — it’s personality. It is that intangible sense of meaning we get from interacting and connecting with real people.
When you think of your local mom and pop business, you don’t think of “Mom and Pop”. You think of “Bob and Linda’s grocery”, “Hank Miller’s garage”, or “Susie’s stationary shop”. You think of a real individual with a unique personality and identity. And because of that, you’re able to form not just an economic relationship with that business, but a personal one as well.
For larger companies, establishing those relationships is a major challenge. Some companies adopt a familiar face to represent their business (think Dave Thomas of Wendy’s). Others leverage celebrity CEOs to define themselves (think Steve Jobs or Elon Musk). But while a face can be helpful for those organizations that have one, a voice is an absolute necessity for all.
That’s where content comes in.
For companies who can’t connect face-to-face with their customers, content is an indispensable tool for bridging the emotional gap. Websites, blogs, and social media platforms are the virtual checkout counters where customers can linger and get to know a business better.
Without that space, large companies remain both literally and figuratively faceless.
But what should I say? What kind of content should I produce? That depends…who are you? Many companies take the staid, sanitized approach to identity. They fear alienating people, so they adopt a firmly middle-of-the-road personality. And while they succeed in not alienating anyone, they also don’t attract anyone.
Content must be real.
For content to be effective, a company must create a real, recognizable identity — one that is both consistent and unique. It’s tough to get to know someone with multiple personalities. It’s even tougher to get to know someone without any personality. The same idea applies for businesses.
The preferred industry jargon for this idea is “branding”, and generally speaking, that is what we’re talking about here. However, I feel that the idea of branding doesn’t fully encompass the value of the mom and pop effect, nor how content can recreate it.
When you go to the corner store, and the owner strikes up a conversation about baseball, is he marketing to you? Is he engaging in brand management? I certainly hope not! And I suspect that, if that was the case, the entire appeal of Mom and Pop businesses would evaporate into thin air.
Content is self-expression.
Think of content not as a branding or marketing tool, but instead as a means of connection and self-expression. Allowing your organization to simply give voice to its identity, and share its thoughts and observations with the public, is what content is all about.
In that same 2014 survey, nearly 50% of respondents said they think small business owners have higher ethical standards than CEOs of major companies. Those perceptions of trustworthiness and honesty are essential to understanding the appeal of Mom and Pop. You’re more likely to trust an acquaintance than a stranger, right? In the same way, you’re more likely to trust a company with a recognizable identity than a faceless one.
When it comes to the success of your business, providing a superior product is obviously a prerequisite — a business that is all talk and no walk won’t survive for long. But being great and being heard are two different matters entirely. You can have the best business model in the world, but unless your customers can see that and connect with it, your organization risks being lost in the crowd.
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